This review was originally published on the Meanjin blog on August 15 2012
A new Michael Haneke film is generally the feel-bad event of the cinema year, affording us the opportunity to be emotionally and intellectually terrorised by a director with an exquisite control of his craft. Although they are always astonishingly well-made (which is reason enough to see them), they are highbrow cinematic junk food—exciting to consume, but mostly empty calories—the equivalent of a slasher movie for the art-house intelligentsia set. His latest film (and perhaps his finest to date) had its first screening at MIFF last Thursday.
In Amour (2012), Haneke shows us the the last days of an elderly married couple. After the wife suffers a series of debilitating strokes, the two retreat into their apartment, where the husband attempts to manage and direct his wife’s care on his own, barely tolerating the presence and interference of their daughter and well-wishers.
Haneke inflicts on us each distressing deterioration of the wife’s physical and mental health, while also exposing for us the simple intimacy of the couple’s love for each other. The film is thoroughly emotionally harrowing.
Haneke is a great filmmaker. But, perhaps like all great filmmakers, he is his own worst enemy. The compelling intellectual authority that drives his best work also drives his films, Amour included, off the cliff.
His cinema is didactic. Each film can be understood as a revisionist corrective to some common cultural assumption or habit. Funny Games (1997) punishes us for our moral laxitude in our fetishization of screen violence. Caché (2005) attempts to rouse us from some sort of post-colonial white bourgeois complacency. Amour dispenses with our sentimentalization of aging and confronts us with the realities of mortality. Haneke is the film-going public’s stern grandfather, and each film is a collective scolding.
His strength and his weakness is his astonishing formal control. His films are immaculately made, and laser precise in their effects (I defy you to leave Amour unmoved), but they are also, ultimately, closed systems: hermetically sealed and climate controlled—nothing can enter which is not permitted by the director. But the trade-off for this power is the absence of anything approaching the looseness and vigour of real life. Thus, in Amour, we have a film about love that has little feeling for the meaning of family, or friendship.
Haneke is unable to admit anything outside of himself, unable to slacken his grip on his material and let it walk around and breathe on its own. This, after all, is the filmmaker who issued forth the same lecture on screen violence twice—the twin versions of Funny Games from 1997 and 2008—and despite the eleven year lapse barely condescended to change a thing.
But more problematic than his intellectual rigidity is the subtle gerrymandering he employs to generate his effects. His films are meticulous in their construction of a ‘realist’ screen affect—with their impeccably life-sized performances, and cooly impersonal camera work. But so often, at critical junctures, Haneke cheats. Consider the way in which the narratives of The White Ribbon (2009) and Caché devolve into studied, dead-end ambiguities. Amour suffers from this as well. After spending most of the film convincing us he has the stones to see his narrative through to its inevitable end, Haneke surprises us with a with a dream-like, elliptic conclusion. I take such intellectually dishonest hand-waving as proof that his schematic narratives are incommensurable to the business of real life.
Like all Haneke films, Amour is a galvanising performance by a master rhetorician—it’s only as we leave the cinema that we pause to reflect on the speciousness of his arguments.